Ghana are looking back with satisfaction on their CAF Africa Cup of Nations performance despite defeat in their first final since 1992. After the bitter disappointment of losing the deciding game in the final five minutes, despite largely having the better of overwhelming favourites Egypt in Luanda, has come the positive realisation of the magnitude of their achievement.
However, coach Milovan Rajevac has dismissed claims that he now has a rather surprising selection headache to ponder over the next six months on the way to the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. “The experience we have gained here will be crucial to our preparations for the World Cup,” admitted the Serbian after watching a gaggle of promising youths perform well in Angola.
But he insists the starlets will have to wait for their time in the sun as first team players return from injury. “The young players are the future, but they cannot play on their own. For instance in the final, Egypt beat us because they had plenty of experience,” he said.
Untested to start and easily beaten in their opening group game, 3-1 by Côte d'Ivoire, the Black Stars showed great fortitude in bouncing back to reach the final by winning their next three matches 1-0. First was Burkina Faso to get out of Group B, then they knocked off hosts Angola in the quarter-finals and West African rivals Nigeria in the last four. Their unlikely run ended, however, on the wrong side of a 1-0 loss as Egypt won their third consecutive trophy with a late goal from super-sub Gedo.
Few predicted the Black Stars would shine so brightly through the tournament, particularly after the squad arrived without key players and then saw captain Michael Essien limp out of the tournament with injury. They instead turned to players from October’s FIFA U-20 World Cup-winning team and adjusted their hopes of success in Angola downwards. But Rajevac, who was pilloried when he first arrived to take over the Ghana job because few had ever heard of him, has won over all doubters. His side were not only the first to qualify from the African preliminaries for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, but his reputation is now vastly enhanced by the way his ragtag Ghana side played in Angola.
By Rajevac’s own admission it was not a pretty performance but an effective one. He showed tremendous faith in a makeshift defence that was able to sit back and soak up pressure particularly against Nigeria in the semi-final. The Black Stars proved most effective in shutting up shop once they had taken a first half lead. With an average age of just 20, the defensive trio of Samuel Inkoom, Lee Addy and Issac Vorsah combined with veterans left back Hans Sarpei and goalkeeper Richard Kingson to form the best defence in the tournament.
A strong team performance aside, Ghana did not create a lot of scoring opportunities, only bulging the opponent’s net four times in the event, three of them through in-form striker Asamoah Gyan. They also lost concentration in the dying moments of the final to allow a goal against the run of play. That, says Rajevac, means that for all the positive impact of the young players, Ghana will still be looking to the likes of Essien, Stephen Appiah, John Mensah, John Paintsil, Laryea Kingston and Sulley Muntari, who was left out of the squad for disciplinary reasons, to return for the campaign in South Africa later this year.
Sarpei, only one of two players in the starting 11 in Sunday’s final who had been born the last time Ghana won the Nations Cup in 1982, agreed that the old guard would be making their way back into place. “You know the kids are good players. They helped us get this far, and it shows that we have a future. Whether there will be that many in the team at the World Cup remains to be seen,” said German-based full-back. “I’m sure some will be there, but I think we need to have a few more experienced players at the finals.”
The Black Stars will play two friendlies in London at the end of May, against Ukraine and Argentina, before meeting the Netherlands in Rotterdam on 1 June. Less than two weeks later they begin their FIFA World Cup campaign against Serbia in Group D, which also includes Australia and Germany.